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The American Mafia bets on the world and wins big

By David Amoruso

Gambling has always been the American Mafia’s “bread and butter.” After controlling illicit gambling across the United States, the mob upped the ante by turning Las Vegas into Sin City, a gambler’s paradise. But in true gambling spirit: It was never enough. In the decades that followed the mob expanded abroad and set up casinos across the globe in Cuba, Mexico, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. As the quote goes, “Always the dollars, always the fuckin’ dollars.”

A Chicago mob boss’ fall from grace

“Always the fuckin’ dollars.” That’s also what must’ve gone through the mind of Sam Giancana (right) as he arrived at Chicago’s O’ Hare Airport. Looking disheveled and poor, the former Chicago mob boss showed none of the moxie he displayed years earlier when he commanded one of the most powerful Mafia families in the United States. At the airport, he was greeted by FBI agent William Roemer, who later wrote about the meeting, “Giancana was undoubtedly the wealthiest man on that plane, but he looked like some Italian immigrant landing at Ellis Island, destitute and frail.”

He was done with his life of crime, Giancana allegedly told Roemer. He had spent the previous years traveling around the world, anywhere from Europe and the Middle East to Central and South America, investing in lucrative gambling endeavors. He had settled in Cuernavaca, Mexico, from where he coordinated his global operation and enjoyed the millions of dollars flowing in. Until word of his riches reached the bosses back in Chicago.

Giancana began his journey around the world in 1966, after he had been kicked out of the Chicago family by bosses Paul “The Waiter” Ricca and Anthony “Joe Batters” Accardo (right). Now that they heard about his foreign gambling successes, they wanted a piece of the pie. When Giancana refused to pay tribute, they allegedly sent mob associate Richard Cain to Mexico to, as Accardo told Cain, “explain the facts of life to him.” The powerful mob boss emphasized, “I mean the facts of life, do you understand what I’m saying?” 

Despite becoming an outcast, it was clear to all involved that you are never really out of the mob. You are either in or you’re dead. Giancana’s days of relaxing in the Mexican sun had come to an end. Local authorities agreed. They arrested Giancana for being in the country illegally and put him on a plane back to the United States. The fallen mob boss arrived in Chicago on July 18, 1974. Eleven months later, he was shot to death in the basement of his home in Oak Park, Chicago.

“Bigger than U.S. Steel”

By the time of Giancana’s murder, the American Mafia’s gambling empire was firmly entrenched worldwide and booming as never before. Decades of experience were paying off royally. La Cosa Nostra’s solid structure and organization provided the backbone and muscle that enabled business to run smoothly without interference or threats from outside. The mob’s intricate knowledge of the gambling world was a guarantee for untold profits at casinos and games everywhere.  They were professionals and ran their businesses accordingly.

No man embodied this professionalism more perfectly than Jewish crime boss Meyer Lansky (right). Ranked officially as a mere “associate,” he meant much more to La Cosa Nostra than many of its “made” members. It was Lansky’s sharp mind and business acumen that revolutionized the mob’s gambling operations. As author Selwyn Raab points out in his book Five Families, “Lansky’s illegal gambling clubs, commonly known as ‘carpet joints,’ were more upscale, with fine food and drinks, and better furnished than the ordinary grimy parlors run by the mob in New York and other big cities.”

Lansky realized gambling was about more than placing a bet or rolling the dice, it was about having a good time. When people enjoyed themselves, they were more likely to stick around and spend more money gambling. And if they lost, they at least had a fun time and were more likely to come back.

It was that same mindset that led Lansky’s close childhood pal Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel to build The Flamingo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Siegel had a vision for Vegas no one else had. Back in the 1940s, Nevada was just a desert with legalized gambling. You played craps and roulette in dusty saloons surrounded by hicks. Siegel envisioned a city built on gambling, a luxurious paradise where visitors could relax and enjoy themselves. Gambling was just one of the many attractions on offer.

Never one to miss out on a possibly lucrative opportunity, Lansky backed his friend financially and got other gangsters to invest as well. But things didn’t go as planned. Siegel lived up to his nickname and was making bad decisions during the construction of his beloved hotel and casino. “Bugsy” wanted the very best of everything. Every bathroom had its own sewer line, he ordered the best imported woods and marble, which, considering that these were the post war times, were hard and expensive to come by. Siegel’s contractor couldn’t produce all the necessary building materials. As a result Siegel spent large amounts of money and bought the materials on the black market. Costs ballooned from 1.5 million dollars to 6 million dollars when The Flamingo finally opened its doors to the public on December 26, 1946.

All the while, Lansky was covering for his friend, keeping impatient investors at ease, buying him more time to turn his dreams into reality. Unfortunately, the odds were not in Siegel’s favor. In its first two weeks The Flamingo lost $100,000 dollars and Siegel decided to close it down to do some more work on it. His investors were not amused. On June 20, 1947, a sniper blew Siegel’s eye out while he was sitting in his Beverly Hills mansion. For good measure, the assassin fired one more bullet in his face and two in his chest.

There was nothing Lansky could do. This was part of the cost of doing business in “the life.” A high cost, but the return was worth the risk. The mob made more money than any legitimate corporation ever could. Or, as Lansky allegedly said in those days, “We’re bigger than U.S. Steel.”

A Few Good Men

While Siegel was focusing solely on Las Vegas, Lansky had his eyes on Cuba. During the 1930s, he had developed a fruitful friendship with Cuban leader Fulgencio Batista, one that paid off handsomely when Batista seized power after a successful military coup in March of 1952. Though, Lansky and the mob had been active on Cuba for decades already, after Batista crowned himself ‘Presidente,’ they were welcomed back with open arms and given full access to the local gambling scene.

Cuba turned into the Latin Las Vegas, with plush casinos popping up all over the place. Lansky and Batista pooled their resources and built The Riviera Hotel at a cost of $14 million dollars. The island became known for its gambling, exotic surroundings, and wild, hedonistic  parties. Cuba was the new place to be if you were a gambler. The mob organized frequent gambling junkets from New York and Miami, flying gamblers back and forth in a constant stream airplanes.

Everything ran like clockwork. Through the years, Lansky had assembled a strong, reliable crew of brothers to work the casinos for him. Dino, Eddie, Bobby, and Goff Cellini grew up in Steubenville, Ohio. It was in this town filled with steel mill workers that they honed their gambling skills running dice games in the back of cigar shops. Further up north, in Youngstown, they perfected their game and came in contact with powerful mobsters who put the brothers to work at their casinos.

Born in 1914, Dino (right) was the oldest and, subsequently, leader of the bunch. Lansky and the mob had complete faith in him and his brothers, which was exemplified when they put them in charge of several casinos in Havana, Cuba.

Still, as far as La Cosa Nostra was concerned, these men were all just associates. They were not initiated. In Meyer Lansky’s case he could never become a member of the Mafia as he was not Italian. This meant that no matter how powerful and rich Lansky got, he would never have more say than a “made” guy. In an underworld dominated by made members of the Italian American Mafia associates needed a protector. Lansky and the Cellini brothers had one in Genovese crime family soldier Vincent “Jimmy Blue Eyes” Alo.

Lansky had been introduced to Alo by their mutual friend Charles “Lucky” Luciano in 1929. Alo’s niece Carole Cortland Russo recounted what happened since that day in an interview with the Huffington Post, “Uncle Jim and Meyer took to each other, instantly. From that day on, they were the best of friends for the rest of their lives. They were similar in many ways; bookish, calm, soft-spoken. Uncle Jim once said he admired Meyer more than any human being he had ever met.”

Alo (right) was another example of an Italian mobster who could’ve become a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, but went the other route when he came up against racism. “As a teenager,” Carole Cortland Russo explains, “Uncle Jim got a job on Wall Street. He worked for five years until he realized he wasn't getting promoted. Why? He was Italian. There were no Italians working on Wall Street. He said ‘to hell with this’ and wound up getting involved in a jewelry store heist where he was caught holding the bag. He was sent to Dannemora Prison for five brutal years. When he came out, he said he had learned to be a good criminal, and never had a job for the rest of his life. He got involved with Prohibition and that's when he met Charlie and Meyer.”

He would become a gangland legend in his own right, but it wasn’t until Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather that he was immortalized as ‘Johnny Ola.’ Played by actor Dominic Chianese - who went on to stardom playing Uncle Junior on The Sopranos - Ola had a minor part in the screenplay, a stark contrast with the role “Jimmy Blue Eyes” played in real life.

Greener Pastures

For eight wonderful years the Mafia won big in Cuba. With the government as its partner the sky was the limit. As usual, these good times did not last. An uprising led by Fidel Castro overthrew Batista’s regime and ousted the mob from Cuba. It was time to find a new gambling paradise.

Lansky and his associates found one north of Cuba.

Under British rule since 1718, the Bahamas offered the same tropical surroundings as Cuba, and, more importantly, a similar corrupt government that was open to working with the American gangsters.

Despite the fact that the island country had prohibited gambling in the 1920s, the current government, The United Bahamian Party, dished out a license to financier Wallace Groves’ Bahama’s Amusements Limited for operating an unlimited number of casinos there. Thus, its Monte Carlo Casino opened its doors in January of 1964.

The casino was promoted as being exclusively European with no links to the American gambling scene. Ostensibly to ward off any suspicions of mob involvement. If that was the plan, it failed miserably when an American journalist recognized Dino Cellini as the casino’s supervisor and saw over twenty other Lansky henchmen throughout the Monte Carlo. A short three months later, Dino would head a top ten list of Cosa Nostra gangsters who were barred from entering the island.

After reporters dug up more dirt about the corrupt dealings of Bahamian politicians and businessmen, the people let their votes do the talking, putting the Progressive Liberal Party in power and eventually ridding the island of La Cosa Nostra’s influence.

It was all water under the bridge for the Mafia’s gambling czars. They were working so many angles and odds that they simply moved on to the next jackpot.

London in the Swinging Sixties

Pure class with a bit of Hollywood glamour sprinkled on top. That’s the experience the American mob offered British gamblers as they entered the Colony Club, a casino located at Berkeley Square in West London’s Mayfair district, in the 1960s. Upon entering the plush gaming club they were welcomed by none other than George Raft, a movie star whose tinsel town career had taken a dump in the 1940s and who was now using his waning fame working as a front man for the Mafia.

Raft (right) took his new job seriously and had no illusions about the men he worked for. He knew exactly how they dealt with rowdy patrons or ballsy rivals. Former English strongman Micky Fawcett recalled one such time when legendary London crime boss Ronnie Kray wanted to have a go at a father and son who were arguing a bit loudly at the casino. “Ronnie jumped up and was all for going over to sort them out. George Raft calmed him down. He told him they were customers and it would be alright,” Fawcett says.

But that wasn’t the end of the story for Raft who pulled Fawcett aside, asking him, “Has Ronnie met The Blade yet?” ‘The Blade’ being Genovese mobster and stone killer Charles Tourine, who was the highest ranked wiseguy there. Fawcett: “It was obvious to me that Raft thought that Ronnie could become a problem.”

A problem that The Blade could solve.

Charles “The Blade” Tourine was born in 1906 in Matawan, New Jersey, and earned his ominous nickname for the way he dealt with debtors who refused to pay and tough guys who stood in his way. He combined his penchant for violence with a knack for gambling and would go on to help run casinos in Cuba, Las Vegas, and Europe.

Tourine was one of the good ol’ boys of the American Mafia, a network of American mobsters operating on an international scale. For men like him, Vincent Alo, Meyer Lansky, Sam Giancana, and Dino Cellini the United States was just a starting point. The whole world was theirs. And back then, there were many more men like them. Powerful bosses like Santo Trafficante Jr. from Tampa and Angelo Bruno from Philadelphia were heavily invested in the global gambling boom as well.

It was a huge moneymaker and there was no end in sight. This led the Cellini brothers to continue streamlining their organization by setting up a school in London to train casino personnel. Why invest in foreign casinos when the local dealers and croupiers would rob you blind? It’s better to put your own people in there. Who was going to refuse such an offer?

Amsterdamned

In 1974, the same year Giancana was deported from Mexico to the United States, a Mafia delegation arrived in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, to inspect the local gambling market for possible investment opportunities. Among the visitors were Vincent Alo and Dino Cellini. In Amsterdam, the mobsters partnered with Maurits “Zwarte Joop” de Vries, a hulking man with a full black beard who ran various rackets in the city’s famous Red Light District.

When one visited his office, you looked straight at a photo of De Vries’ bloody back after he had been stabbed numerous times during a street fight. The doctor was so impressed De Vries was still alive and standing that he had taken a photo. De Vries framed it and hung it at his office to show visitors he was not one to trifle with. Something the Mafia could appreciate.

With De Vries as their local protector, the mob invested $1 million dollars into the Cabala, the first professional casino in the Netherlands, which opened its doors in 1976 with Dino Cellini as manager. The mob brought in its experienced personnel to work with the Dutch casino employees and show them the ropes. A smart move, but things did not go as smooth as planned. The Dutch didn’t like being told what to do. As one former Cabala-employee told a Dutch journalist, “It was a head-on collision between two different cultures. Think about it: In their own country the Cellinis were used to being driven around in limousines and people holding open the door for them. Cellini was a big name in the States, still is, but over here no one had ever heard of him.”

The biggest insult came when one of the Dutch enforcers threw a paper ball at Goff Cellini’s head while he was fixing one of the slot machines. Goff demanded that De Vries take some kind of disciplinary action, but was surprised when the Dutch boss only gave his underling a verbal reprimand. “If you had done this in my country,” Goff snarled at his bully, “you would have been a dead man by now.”

Despite the cultural differences, the partnership became a success. Cabala made a yearly multi-million-dollar profit which was split evenly between both parties. As money was pouring in, De Vries (photo above on the left) already had big plans for a second and even larger casino named Club 26. It was the crown on De Vries’ work. Club 26 was a casino, nightclub, and gym all in one and was to cost 18 million dollars. He asked and received a mob investment of ten million dollars through Vincent Alo, though the Genovese mobster was not as enthusiastic about the new casino as his Dutch partner-in-crime.

Gambling was still illegal in the Netherlands and even though De Vries had paid off police, his new casino was bound to attract more attention from not just gamblers, but the media and politicians as well. Cabala was a much smaller venue and brought in enough cash for everyone. Why risk that? No doubt Alo had flashbacks to the time “Bugsy” Siegel was busy building his hotel and casino in Las Vegas, a dream that turned into a nightmare.

And indeed, Club 26 turned out to be everything the mob feared. It attracted a lot of attention from law enforcement and was raided a year after its opening. When a disgruntled employee set fire to the place in December of 1983, burning down both Club 26 and Cabala and killing thirteen people who were inside, De Vries’ empire lay in ruins. He died a broken man on July 13, 1986.

End of an Era

As the Dutch casinos were still smoldering, many of the men responsible for their inception were already long gone. Dino Cellini died from a brain tumor in 1978, Meyer Lansky died from lung cancer in 1983, “Jimmy Blue Eyes” Alo had officially retired, and though Cellini’s relatives carried on his inheritance - starting up casinos in Africa - the loss of these men was a turning point in the American Mafia’s domination of the foreign gambling world.

La Cosa Nostra had enough businesses and problems to focus on at home. Prosecutors were becoming more tenacious with their use of the RICO law and surveillance by law enforcement was a constant worry.

Besides, most of these international gambling czars were getting old and tired. They were retiring to Florida to enjoy their wealth rather than risk it all for a few more dollars. They had bet big and won even bigger. For several decades, a select group of American mobsters ruled the gambling scene in many parts of the world. That’s not a bad legacy to leave behind.

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